FREETHINKERS is a must-have for anyone who values liberty in America, for secularists and the religious alike. At a time when the Christian right is flexing its muscles at every opportunity, Susan Jacoby cites the many contributions to humanity made by agnostics, atheists, and all champions of Freethought in America. From the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, to the end of slavery in the South, to the struggle for women's rights, FREETHINKERS sets the record straight on who fought hard for these humanitarian advances and, just as important, who just as strongly opposed them.
It is an outrage that so many young people who graduate from our high schools today know so little about the accomplishments of our founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, two of the leading freethinkers determined to set up a new and independent government free of religious influence. If FREETHINKERS were to be made required reading for high school students nationwide, as part of their historical curriculum, they might appreciate the struggles it took for our founding fathers to establish the government which too many have been taken for granted. And, we would hope, a much greater determination to hold on to our liberties, rather than surrender them to fundamentalist religions and churches.
Robert Green Ingersoll, the nineteenth-century orator, nicknamed "the Great Agnostic," made the following statement on July 4, 1876, the Centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence: "We have retired the gods from politics. We have found that man is the only source of political power, and that the governed should govern." The freethinkers clearly concur with this statement. However, the Christian right does not. In fact, it would like nothing better than to go back to the nineteenth century, when various minority groups, namely African Americans, women and all non-Christians had few rights, if any. Religious conservatives want God's churches governing man instead, and it makes every effort to discredit secularist accomplishments. In some notable cases, such as the abolishing of slavery, it blatantly claims credit where none is deserved.
In addition to highlighting the achievements of more notable figures of Freethought history such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Thomas Paine, Jacoby also brings some of the lesser-known heroes to light as well. Does anyone remember the names William Lloyd Garrison or Philo Beckwith? What about the early female pioneers of American Freethought, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote the famous Woman's Bible, Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters? At a time where women were expected to content themselves with the duties of home and hearth while cheerfully submitting to the authority of their husbands, these women began paving the road to the freedoms women have now, including the right to vote, to have access to birth control and work outside the home.
Throughout the book, Jacoby illustrates a wide variety of battles between freethinkers and fundamentalists in the struggles for women's advancement, the establishment of secular public schools, and the publication of Freethought magazines, such as the prominent Truth Seeker. She describes the atmosphere of intimidation by America's "nineteenth-century thought police" who were determined to see certain information and publications kept away
from the average person. The most prominent leader of the thought police in the nineteenth century was Anthony Comstock, proponent of the notorious "Comstock laws."
"In 1873, Comstock worked his magic on the U.S. Congress," Jacoby writes, "although it is not clear how, even with the backing of organized religion, such an inexperienced and obsessed young man managed to sway hard-bitten legislators. Judging from diary entries in which Comstock recorded his endless lobbying in Washington, some congressmen may have voted in favor of the obscenity statute for the sole purpose of getting rid of the angry and intrusive Puritan ghost haunting their offices." It was a devastating blow to freedom of expression in America, from which it has taken a very long time to recover. Comstock targeted several prominent figures, such as Margaret Sanger, for distributing material for women, telling them how they could prevent future pregnancies, and D.M. Bennett, editor of the popular Truth Seeker, whom he actively pursued for three years. Jacoby notes that while Comstock targeted Bennett personally, his real target was the Truth Seeker itself. However, even Comstock couldn't legally shut the magazine down, because its editorial content focused primarily on politics and religion, and fell within the protection of the First Amendment.
Despite the tremendous achievements of prominent secularists both past and present, our work is far from over. Jacoby points out that "American secularists have fallen asleep at the switch," and have taken too many of our present liberties for granted. This is indeed a dangerous practice, especially in the face of growing opposition to secularism from leaders of the Christian right. "It is crucial for today's secularists to find a way to convey the passions of humanism as Ingersoll once did, to move hearts as well as to change minds." American secularists have found several ways to accomplish this goal, thanks largely to the efforts of those who publish Freethought Magazines like FREE INQUIRY, and to the webmasters who set up internet forums for both Americans and other world citizens to meet and exchange ideas.
Although historical works can often become dry and uninteresting, FREETHINKERS is anything but. Jacoby makes the history of American secularism and its champions a compelling and highly entertaining read. So buy the book already. And when you do, read it over carefully, from the first page to the last. It will give you the inspiration to challenge the forces of Christian fundamentalism, just as our secularist forebears did.